Exploring the Wadden Sea National Park, Germany
Blogger Victoria Watts Kennedy discovers the beautiful beaches and wildlife in Germany's Wadden Sea National Park.
Berlin, the Alps, Oktoberfest, pretty Bavarian towns; these are the things you tend to think of when imagining a holiday in Germany. Beaches definitely don’t spring to mind. But tucked away in the north of the country lies a little beach town that holds one of the world’s natural wonders, the Wadden Sea. German tourists have been visiting its white sands and extraordinary seabed for years, so I decided to visit and find out what it’s all about.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011, the Hamburg Wadden Sea National Park is just 100km up the River Elbe from Hamburg. Twice a day, when the tide goes out, the seabed is left exposed for up to 20km from the shore. It’s these exposed mudlflats that provide much of the National Park’s fun, allowing visitors to walk for miles on the seabed, or even be pulled along by horse and cart. This is how I spent a few days, exploring this unique wilderness.
The Wadden Sea National Park is accessed via Cuxhaven, a seaside town, just under two hours by train from Hamburg. The beach itself is beautiful, with near-white sand and iconic little beach huts that you can hire for the day. These huts, shaped like small carriages, are an ideal place to sit back and read a book, or simply stare out at the sea. They’re also a good base for families, providing shade from the sun. There are three main beach areas to choose from: Sahlenburg, Duhnen, and Dose. The latter is actually a grassy, rather than sandy, ‘beach’, but still has huts and is a pretty place to relax. For our first day, I chose Duhnen as this is a popular place to start a guided walking tour of the mud flats.
You can walk on the mudflats yourself, but it’s best to do a tour for two reasons: firstly, you can learn a lot from your guide, and secondly, it’s a lot safer. The tide rolls in quickly and many a walker has been left stranded on the flats, unable to get back to shore. There are little rescue towers around the flats, and our guide told us that around two people have to be rescued every single week. Make sure you’re not one of them!
I joined a tour with Cuxhaven Wattführungen, guided by the friendly and very knowledgeable, Ute. The tours are all in German, but Ute bought along a translator who kept us well informed. We walked for three hours on the mudflats for around 6km, feeling mesmerised by the expanse of seabed before us, and revived by the salty sea air. Ute stopped us regularly to point out different creatures, from green crabs, to shrimps, to snails. We were delighted at the sight of cockles burying themselves into the sand, and the discovery of sand worms that leave little spaghetti-like piles of sand all the way across the flats. The whole area provides habitats for more than 10,000 plant and animal species, and is also a stopover for many migrating birds.
One of the highlights of the walk was some time spent searching for amber. What at first seemed like a futile task soon proved fruitful as different people started to find pieces here and there, until finally we all had some. It’s a beautiful keepsake from the trip.
On day two, I headed to Sahlenburg, home to the modern Cuxhaven Visitor Centre. This beautifully-designed exhibition is a good way to learn more about the geography of the area and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It includes a display of taxidermy animals that have made the mudflats home. It’s good to allow an hour for your visit, but you could also spend hours there, exploring the library if you wanted to delve further.
Sahlenburg is also a popular starting point for a wattwagen ride to Neuwerk. This is a must-do for any trip to the National Park, allowing you to travel by horse and cart across the mudflats all the way to the island of Neuwerk. Trips also leave from Duhnen, but these take around 30 minutes longer.
The wattwagen trips are mostly run by the inhabitants of Neuwerk, who number just 40. I went with Doris Henn. The colourful carts hold up to nine people and are pulled by mighty horses. The terrain varies from simple mudflats where the horses can run, to tidal creeks where they have to wade, almost up to their necks; their strength is amazing. The driver explains things along the way, but the trip is in German so you may need to just sit back and enjoy the ride like I did.
Once on Neuwerk, you have an hour to explore. There’s a tower you can climb that offers sweeping views across the island, and you can also walk along paths that line the farmland that makes up most of Neuwerk. If you want more time, you can opt to take a boat back later when the tide comes in, or you could also spend the night at one of the many farmhouses. It’s a popular option to sleep on hay in one of the barns for a true farmyard experience.
The journey back is quicker as the tide is further out so the tidal pools are less deep. I watched as horse riders gallop by, and groups of walkers explored the seabed. It’s possible to walk all the way from Cuxhaven to Newark, but you have to time the tide exactly, so it’s best not to try it alone. The wattwagen trip from Sahlenburg takes around 3.5 hours in total, including the hour in Neuwerk. It leaves at different times every day, depending on the tide, and it’s advisable to book in advance as spaces are limited. Visit the visitor centre before or after, depending on the timing of your trip.
On day three, I started my day at Dose, which is also next to the port. From there, I joined a boat trip with Jan Cux to go look for the Wadden Sea’s seals. The trip also takes you past the port area, and offers a guided commentary (in German) throughout. It’s a good chance to see the town from the water, and offers a lovely view of Dose. The seals are there from around April - mid October, and when I went, at the end of September, I was lucky to see two huge seals on a sandbank. However, I heard from people who went earlier in the summer who had seen up to 150. For me, even seeing two in their natural habitat felt special.
For the rest of my day, I decided to explore the area by bicycle. There are walking and cycle routes all around Cuxhaven and it’s the perfect way to explore, from the coastal paths to the inner woodlands. Simply follow your nose or look out for the National Park Discovery Trail near the visitor centre, which can be cycled or walked. One place that’s worth stopping at is the Kugelbake tower that serves as a landmark for sailors. It’s an iconic spot on the coastline, and a good photo opportunity.
At the end of my day, I said goodbye to Cuxhaven and took the ferry back to Hamburg, for a final slice of city at the end of our stay.
Day four We’ve previously written a Greentraveller's Guide to Hamburg, which suggests lots of great things to do in the city. For this trip, I decided to get a feel for the city by visiting some viewpoints and walking around its streets, parks and waterside. I climbed all 453 steps to get to the top of the tower of St Michael’s Church. This was somewhat unnecessary, as you can take a lift to the top, but it’s good exercise if you want it. The panoramic view takes in the whole city and gives you a sense of how the city melds with the port.
For a different view, cross through the Elbe Tunnel, which allows you to look back on Hamburg from the port-side of the harbour. It’s a peaceful spot, just a few minutes from the bustle of the city.
Over on the other side, it’s nice to walk along Landunsbrücken to watch the ships come and go, or stroll a little further and discover some of the urban beach bars; we loved Strand Pauli with its eclectic recycled style, featuring everything from old cars to colourful lanterns.
Hamburg has some beautiful green spaces, and we enjoyed a sunny walk through Planten un Blomen with its pretty lakes and Japanese garden. And finally, if you want to treat yourself to some ice-cream, we highly recommend Luiciella’s, which features deliciously innovative flavours, from basil to tropical ginger.
How to get there and around See Greentraveller's Guide to how to travel by train from London to Hamburg. You can then get to Cuxhaven by train or ferry from Hamburg. The train takes 1hr 45mins, and the ferry takes 2hr 15min. Trains leave around once an hour, but there is only one ferry per day.
I recommend hiring a bike as soon as you get to Cuxhaven and using that to travel around the area. There are also buses, but some run infrequently (one per hour) so you need to time your trips carefully, and then the bus may be late. You can also walk around the area. For example, it takes around one hour to walk from Sahlenburg to Duhen, and then another hour to get to Dose and the Kugelbake tower.
One thing to note is that very few people in Cuxhaven speak English, so it’s worth knowing a few German phrases.
Where to stay In Cuxhaven, I stayed at the Nordseehotel and Gästhaus Heidi Weiss. The Nordseehotel is around 30 minutes walk from Sahlenburg beach, and also houses a popular fish restaurant. The simple rooms are clean and tidy, and the staff are all really friendly.
Gasthaus Heidi Weiss (pictured above) is a comfortable, family-run guesthouse with large, nicely decorated rooms, and delightful owners, full of smiles, and eager to help. The pretty guesthouse is in a charming blue building, next to Cuxhaven’s old town, and is just a short walk from the port area and Dose.
Back in Hamburg, I stayed at Motel One, part of a modern chain of stylish, comfortable hotels. There are four Motel Ones in Hamburg, and I stayed in Hamburg Am Michel, right in the city centre. It’s ideally located for exploring the city’s major sights.
>> Victoria posted updates on her trip on social media using the hashtag #EnjoyGermanNature
== Disclosure: Victoria Watts Kennedy was a guest of the German National Tourist Organisation. Victoria had full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting the Wadden Sea National Park this September. All opinions are the author’s own.